Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday Prayer Service at Baridhara Mosque

videoEvery Friday at about 12:30 p.m. we can see the prayer service taking place at the neighborhood mosque. It usually lasts about two hours - this (incredibly shaky) video only shows the first prayer.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

No One Celebrates the 4th of July Like the Ex-Pats

As I’m sure you can tell, my life here has become somewhat routine (with regard to school and studying at least), and much busier than it was when I first arrived. I’ve given up on posting daily, and will now focus only on the more interesting/exciting aspects of my days.

That said, this was a pretty exciting week. I can say with confidence that no one celebrates the 4th of July like the ex-pat community!


On Wednesday (the 4th) our group, along with our director and our instructors went to dinner at a restaurant called “Spaghetti Jazz” – a Jazz themed Italian restaurant smack in the middle of Bangladesh. In the words of the program director, “Since the Embassy didn’t see fit to invite us to their 4th of July party, we are going to eat Italian food and drink French wine and Dutch beer.” Although the Italian food was a bit of a stretch (my fettuccine alfredo tasted like it was made with sweetened condensed milk), the evening was fun, and we were there for a few hours. We all sang The Star Spangled Banner (for the benefit of our teachers) before departing. Below is a picture of me with Fatema, my favorite teacher. She’s a non-practicing Muslim whose husband is British, and she’s only back in Bangladesh for the summer. She was thrilled to be having a glass of wine, as were the rest of us!

After the dinner, we all (the students that is) decided to check out a “private” 4th of July party we had heard about from a guy that lives next door. The party was at someone’s house, and was being held on the roof. Most people had left by the time we got there, but it didn’t matter to us… All 17 of us made it a new party. There was a guy who was acting DJ for the party, and we all just started dancing with the 10 or 12 people who were still there. It was both fun and funny. They had decorated the place with Christmas lights and red, white, and blue streamers. We stayed for about an hour, all of us dancing the whole time. I imagine if anyone was watching it was a pretty hilarious sight, all things considered. A picture of one of my classmates, Alex, playing foosball at the party is below.


Everyone struggled to stay awake during class on Thursday, and consequentially opted not to go to the 4th of July party being sponsored by a local U.S. Marine unit that night.


It didn’t however, keep us from going to yet another 4th of July party on Friday (the 6th). This party was held at a place called the “American Club,” which is basically a complex where you go to pretend you’re still in America. They have a pool, gym, playground, mini theatre, bar, restaurant, etc. They serve food like potato salad, pork spare-ribs, corn on the cob, apple pie, and the like. To take advantage of these things, one must purchase a membership and pay dues. As a matter of principle, we are discouraged from going to the American club, as it’s pretty contrary to learning about Bangladeshi culture. Independence Day (or at least the celebration of it) seemed like a legitimate exception. Our neighbor, who is a Marine and a member of the club, invited all of us and offered to sponsor our entry (you don’t have to pay membership dues if you are sponsored by a member, but you do have to show an American passport). It cost 700 taka to get in, which seems like so much, but in reality, it’s only $10 USD. They actually had a huge buffet of “American” food (see above), but not knowing that, we had already eaten at home. Anyway, we spent 5 hours at the American Club, all of us dancing. It was pretty ridiculous, but again, so were the other people who were there, so it didn’t much matter. It may be no surprise that we were the last people to leave the party.

All in all, it definitely ranks as the best July 4th of my life (so far!).

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Past Week

It is once again time for the abridged and abbreviated “catch up” version of the blog. I won’t even begin to make excuses…

I woke up Tuesday morning to find a giant cockroach on the floor about two feet from my bed, and spent the better part of a half hour trying to flick it toward and out the door. I should’ve taken that as an omen. School began with an oral exam, during which I zoned out and repeated a question back to the teacher three times (instead of providing an answer to the question). Tired and not quite “with it,” I wondered why she kept asking me the same question… oops!

During the class break, everyone was back to complaining about the structure of the classes, etc., and I nearly lost my mind. Once again, I proposed that we provide constructive solutions instead of complaints, and once again they all looked at me like I was crazy. I grabbed the white board marker anyway, and said, “Don’t talk about what you don’t like, tell me what it is you want.” It went pretty well, and I ended up spending part of my afternoon writing up a neat, bulleted three page list for the teachers that included all of the agreed upon suggestions.

I skipped out on lunch, seizing the opportunity to have some quiet time (for the first time so far!). Two and a half weeks of being constantly surrounded by people is too much.

In the late afternoon, we had a lecture on Islam and Hinduism, given by the program director. The information provided was not new, and as a result was rather boring.

Tuesday evening was uneventful.

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Wednesday’s class was painful, as we attempted to read through a children’s book. Here’s my theory: Kids know how to talk before they learn to read… so shouldn’t languages be taught the same way?

After class, my day improved rapidly. First, I went to lunch with one of my roommates at a Vietnamese restaurant, which was pretty good. Then we went shopping for clothes… which is to say she went shopping and I people watched… I’m not terribly interested in shopping at home, and am equally uninterested here, especially when my options are simply different colored sacks with M.C. Hammer-style pants. On the way home, however, we stumbled upon a store called Westec’s, which featured a random assortment of western-style clothing. I was OVERJOYED to find a pair of jeans for about $10 USD. I bought them without hesitation, and with full knowledge that wearing jeans would probably raise my core temperature about five degrees. At this point, wearing anything with a zipper fly and a button seems as close to America as I could get.

I went home completely satisfied and remained so for the remainder of the evening, confident that the day couldn’t get any better. And then… as these things tend to go, it did get better. I watched Little Miss Sunshine, one of my all-time favorite movies, with one of my roommates. No matter how many times I see it, I still think it’s hilarious.

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Thursday’s class was better, incorporating many of the suggestions we had provided the teachers with in our write-up. After class, I met with my conversation partner, Farina. We went to an Italian place called “Bella Italia,” ate pizza, and talked about things that were of importance/interest to her, including corruption in Bangladesh (more rampant than you and I could even imagine) and women’s roles in society. Farina and her family truly seem both very ethical and comparatively liberal. She said that sometime she would have me over to meet her parents and brother… that will be cool. We got stuck in traffic on the way home (Dhaka traffic makes D.C. traffic seem like a Sunday drive), and consequentially, I missed a scheduled lecture on Bangladesh politics, given by a representative from the U.S. Embassy. Luckily, from my classmates reports, it doesn’t sound like I missed anything, as the man who gave the lecture was ill prepared and stumbled through an hour-long presentation.

Thursday night is the beginning of the weekend, and the members of my group, after three weeks of studying, were ready to have fun. About half of the group paid 2000 taka to get into a hotel party, which had a DJ and… you guessed it, alcohol. They reported having a good time – not getting home ‘til about 5:30 a.m. Who would’ve thought Bangladesh had a party scene?

The rest of us went to dinner at an amazing restaurant called Dhoni. We had the most wonderful Bangladeshi and Indian food – the best food I’ve had since being here. While there, we got a call from Ali Akbar – a painter whom we’d met at Jamal Ahmed’s party last week – and he joined us. Ali Akbar (who has the kind of name that just needs to be said in full) is a Bangladeshi native who went to college in the States and never left. He currently lives and teaches in Dallas. He showed up with a bracelet made of jasmine for each of the six girls there, and later paid for dinner for everyone (the bill came to less than $30 for the seven of us). “You’re in Bangladesh,” he said by way of explanation, “This is what the Bengalis do.” We walked around as a group for awhile before stumbling upon a Hookah bar, where we proceeded to spend a couple of hours. We left when they closed down at midnight, and when we got home I watched the documentary “Wordplay” with a couple roommates. I mostly stayed up out of curiosity as to when the others would return from the party, but by 2:30 a.m. tiredness overcame curiosity.

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Friday I slept in until 11 a.m., and was still the first person awake in my apartment. Eventually, a few of us walked to Mango CafĂ©, where we had some lunch and attempted to study for Sunday’s exam. The afternoon went by quickly, and at 6:30, we were scheduled to attend a “reception” at the home of an Embassy representative. The other guests were Bengalis on their way to Seattle to spend 5 weeks in a home-stay environment learning about American culture. The whole occasion was completely awkward as the Bengalis seemed incredibly reluctant to talk to us. Hence, we stood around in a circle and talked to each other, and the Bengalis did the same. I’m not sure how to evaluate that, but it doesn’t seem to align with the reason for either group’s existence. Returning to the house, we found that it was spaggetti night… sort of. The pasta was spaghetti, but the sauce was composed not of tomatoes, but of ground beef with tamarind and cardamom. Still, it was pretty good. That night, the entire group gathered in my apartment and we played Bangla charades, which was pretty disastrous (and pretty funny) given our limited vocabularies.

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Saturday we went to a Hindu temple, where one of our teachers, Shanta, performed the Hindu rituals and invited us to join her if we wanted. I participated in a couple of rituals… one of which was lighting some incense to make an offering to the goddess of wind (smoke/wind you get the idea). Anyway, I was holding the incense in my hand and moving them toward the flames when Shanta grabbed my wrist and jerked it back. “Noreen! Right hand!” she exclaimed. I’m still used to being able to use both of my hands no matter what I am doing, so I had been completely unaware of the fact that I was essentially offering a sacrifice with my “toilet hand” (as the left hand is considered to be reserved for toilet duty in much of South Asia). I was definitely embarrassed, but Shanta wasn’t upset, realizing I was completely unconscious of my actions and what they implied.

After leaving the temple, we stopped by the National Language Martyrs Memorial near Dhaka University.
http://search.com.bd/banglapedia/HT/L_0063.htm In essence, what happened at this location in 1952 was similar to the student protests in Tiananmen Square, but rather than demonstrating for free speech, students were demonstrating to have Bangla, rather than just Urdu, remain a national language, as was being denied by West Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947 (during which time Bangladesh was called East Pakistan). We weren’t given any explanation during the visit, so I only know what I had previously read about the occasion.

The trip home took over an hour. Traffic was terrible, and the driver of our van was worse. I felt incredibly carsick, and couldn’t wait to get out… By the time we got home, I felt horrible (as did most of the people in my van) and chose to lie down for awhile. I ended up napping for a few hours, then got up to study for a couple of hours. After some idle chatter with the roommates, I went to bed.

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I bombed the Sunday morning test (40 out of 100) despite the fact that I had studied for at least 5 hours over the weekend. Oh well.

After class, I went back to Dhoni with one of my roommates, and we had an excellent lunch. We tried to find an NGO to volunteer with while we are here, but our directory must be pretty outdated, because we tried three different places and none of them were still located where the directory listed them. By the time we returned, it was time for our afternoon lecture.

The lecture was given by Shamshur Chowdry, recently retired Ambassador to the United States, more widely known for his prominent role during the Liberation War. He told an amazing story of his involvement before the war, his assignment by Zia to be the one who continually re-read the Declaration of Independence over a radio broadcast after Zia had initially read it. Chowdry had the original Declaration of Independence in his pocket when he was wounded and captured by the Pakistani army only a couple of weeks later. (The document did not survive the war.) He told of his 8 months as a POW, of the various ways he was tortured, of the option he was given (and refused) to sign a statement incriminating two individuals of conspiracy in exchange for his freedom, and of his subsequent transfer to solitary confinement awaiting the death penalty. He survived only because India invaded and the Pakistanis granted independence. It was definitely an amazing talk, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to hear a firsthand account of the war from Chowdry.

A quick dinner, some homework, and a couple of phone calls brought the evening to a close. Ryan & Kyle – Sorry I didn’t get to talk to you, but it sounded like you were having a lot of fun playing outside. I love you both very much!!!

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I’m writing this while it is still Monday, but can already tell you that my day was uninteresting. I went to class, grabbed a quick lunch, then came home to an empty apartment and wrote this blog entry. Everyone else is on a field trip to the Liberation War Museum, and since I already went, I got permission to skip it today. I’ve got a bit of homework to do before reading “A Golden Age,” which is a novel about the Bangladesh Liberation War.

If you made it to the end of this incredibly long post, I congratulate you. I’ll post some pictures later tonight, once my computer battery gets a bit of charge.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Foriegn Ministry

After class on Monday, we loaded into two large vans for a trip to the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry, which is the equivalent of our State Dept. After our experience at the U.S. Embassy, we all had dismal predictions of waiting outside the Foreign Ministry, only to eventually be turned away.

Fortunately, this was not the case. We were greeted eagerly upon our arrival and ushered into a room in which well worn sofas lined the walls. The building was musty, the way you’d expect a haunted house to smell, and the air conditioning wasn’t working. We sat politely on the couches while a man explained to us that we were going to meet some people who were at the Ministry for a “special training,” and that we would have the opportunity to speak to them about why we chose to study Bangla.

The people, as it turns out, were the equivalent of our foreign service officers, each of whom had between two and nine years of experience. We filed into the room where their training session was being held, and they stood as we entered. They were all seated around folding tables arranged in a “u” shape, and we sat on chairs around the circumference of the room. They were as unsure of why we were there as we were ourselves, that much was evident. The man who had greeted us at the entrance asked each of us to introduce ourselves, where we were going to school, what we were majoring in, and why we were interested in learning Bangla. It seems like we went through that information 20 times in the first two days of the program (getting to know each other), and the information rolled off of our tounges. Then the room was silent. The man asked the Ministry employees to introduce themselves and their disciplines, and they did so – then the room fell silent again. We were encouraged to open a dialogue, and a couple of students ventured to do so by asking questions about where the Ministry employees had previously been posted. Their questions were met with dry, succinct answers. Then it was their turn to ask questions of us. They asked how we plan to use Bangla in the future. One woman (who received a Fulbright to study patterns of language development in Bangladesh) began to explain what she planned to research. A man promptly cut her off, saying, “I understand, I understand… but what about YOU?” he asked, gesturing to one of only three men in our group. It was a textbook case of how women are treated here (in general). Men scarcely talk to women, only to each other. There are many shops – particularly tea shops - where women cannot even enter. While educated women are treated with slightly more respect, there is clearly not gender equality by any means. The awkward silence that fell after the man cut her off was unbreakable, and we were dismissed, then led into yet another room.

In this room, we sat around a large wooden conference table in rickety chairs. A man, whom I understood to be the equivalent of an SES, came in to greet us, and we were served tea while we spoke to him. “So,” he said, “I have heard that people think Bangladesh is a backwards country and that we are behind the times. Now that you are here, what do you think?” There was only one right answer to the question, and someone bravely began to elaborate on how forward thinking Bangladesh is. I, however, looked around the dimly lit room. It was clearly the receiving area for guests, and yet the wallpaper revealed streaks where the ceiling had leaked, and the china cabinet proudly displayed a tarnished silver tea set. I thought of our “luxury” apartments, with the electricity that works only occasionally and the plumbing that works even less often. I thought of the “ambulance” we had seen on the way to the Ministry – a man whose leg was soaked in blood crammed into the back of a van with five other people, only two of whom were attending to him – the siren wailing weakly against the strains of traffic while the vehicle moved at a snails pace for the twenty minutes we were beside it on the road. I was immediately glad that I hadn’t been the one called upon to give my opinion on Bangladesh’s progress in the 21st century.

At last, the agonizing and awkward meeting was over, and we climbed back into our vans. It was a strange occasion, especially when contrasted with our visit to the U.S. Embassy. After all, the Bangladeshis had taken the time to meet with us, and a relatively high-ranking official had sat with us for tea. Their hospitality, though forced, was still a step up from the American performance.

After doing some homework and eating dinner, I invited another American I had met to come over for a movie. She is a University of Chicago student here for six weeks, studying the contrast in dietary habits between university students and their parents. Why she is doing that research here is a mystery to me, and I didn’t press for more details. It was obvious when I met her on the street the other day, though, that she nervous about being somewhere so foreign without any language skills at all. In fact, she’s probably wondering why she’s here too. I showed her our cockroaches, which disgusted her thoroughly, before attempting to watch a poorly pirated movie. In the end, we gave up on the movie and watched the BBC news. About 15 minutes after Jenny left, she called. I answered “Hello?” and was greeted with “You suck.” This caught me off guard for a minute, until she said, “Guess what I saw?” It registered quickly… Jenny had found her very own cockroaches. “Welcome to Bangladesh,” I quipped.